Poland Pressed Over Democracy as Report Spurs Demonstrations

  • Police estimate 15,000 protesters turned for rally in Warsaw
  • Government will ask parliament to find solution to stalemate

Poles took to the streets in Warsaw a day after an international constitution watchdog said the government is endangering democracy, deepening the country’s worst political standoff with its Western partners since 1989.

Waving flags and chanting “constitution, constitution,” protesters gathered on Saturday in front of the Constitutional Tribunal, the country’s highest court, to oppose what they see as a dismantling of checks and balances in the European Union’s biggest eastern member. The row is part of the conflict over a power grab by the Law & Justice party since its victory in November’s general election. It’s already triggered Standard & Poor’s unprecedented credit downgrade two months ago and led to the EU’s first probe of a member state’s democracy.

The protests Saturday were sparked by a report from the Venice Commission,  a multilateral group charged with overseeing democracy and human rights, which said the overhaul of the country’s top court imperiled the rule of law and called on the government to abide by the judicial rulings.

Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, a lawmaker from the opposition Nowoczesna party, told a rally in front of the court on Saturday that Poles need to act against what she said was an attempt by the current administration to break the constitution.

“Some of us are worried that we’re going to have a dictatorship here,” she told the crowds before the start of a three-hour march through the streets of Warsaw. “Don’t worry. We’re going to win.”

About 15,000 people took part in the protest in Warsaw, according to the police.

Adding Judges

The conflict began after the ruling party revamped the tribunal last year, making it harder for it to overturn laws. It also stacked the court with its own justices, while President Andrzej Duda, a former member of the party, ignored a ruling that ordered him to swear in three judges picked by the previous cabinet.

The government will ask parliament to study the Venice Commission’s report and find a solution to the political stalemate, its spokesman Rafal Bochenek told reporters earlier on Saturday. He appealed to the opposition to help resolve the row “through a political dialog and without negative emotions.”

That comes after Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who has eschewed a government post to be the power behind the throne, said earlier this week the commission’s critical assessment amounted to “foreign institutions” seeking to undermine Polish “dignity.”

Democratic Dysfunction

In its report released on Friday, the Venice Commission called on the EU’s biggest eastern member to settle its constitutional crisis by respecting judgments of the tribunal. It added that the ruling party’s changes to court procedures “have endangered not only the rule of law but also the functioning of the democratic system.”

The Constitutional Tribunal on Wednesday also ruled that the changes were illegal and breached its independence. In response, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski likened the head of the court, Justice Andrzej Rzeplinski, to an “Ayatollah who is above the law.” The government has dismissed the verdict as a mere “position of a group of justices” rather than a legal ruling. Bochenek repeated that again on Saturday.

A potential EU penalty for infringements on the rule of law is denying Warsaw the right to take part in the bloc’s decisions, but a collapse in relations with Brussels could also have economic implications. Poland is the biggest net beneficiary of the EU budget and is against the bloc’s plans to reduce carbon emissions, which poses a financial risk to its coal power-based industry if it fails to wins concessions.

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